Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Meteorologists Who Help Fight U.S. Fires

  • Meteorologists answer the call to wildfires across the U.S.
  • Record number took to the field in 2015 during a busy summer

The members of the National Weather Service’s IMET program are a little bit like Clark Kent, jokes Heath Hockenberry, national fire-weather program manager in Boise, Idaho.

“They do their normal day jobs” until something goes wrong, he said. Then they can find themselves living in tents at the edge of an inferno for as long as two weeks, trying to keep firefighters safe by forecasting the weather the flames produce.

All Hazards Meteorological Response System
All Hazards Meteorological Response System
Source: NOAA

“You get in a four-wheel-drive rig, you get there and hit the ground running,” Hockenberry said.

Heat from wildfires will flip local weather patterns upside-down, rapidly reversing winds that have killed many firefighters in the field and sending blazes in all new directions.

There are 83 forecasters in IMET, which is short for Incident Meteorologist. They have been trained in fire survival and safety, and carry their own equipment, including weather balloons.

Quick Response

An IMET’s work begins when a call goes out to one of the weather service’s regional offices. The meteorologists will drop what they are doing and get on a plane to the scene. Once they arrive, they will pitch a tent near that of the incident commander and provide on-the-scene help for at least 14 days -- more if they get special permission. The closest weather service office provides backup, helping with forecasts or even wake-up calls.

Fire weather briefing
Fire weather briefing
Source: NOAA

While the current wildfire season didn’t burn a record number of acres, its intensity put 44 meteorologists in the field at the same time, an all-time high, on Aug. 26, Hockenberry said. The old record was 34 in August 2000.

Their primary purpose is to keep people out of harm’s way and also watch weather conditions to get a handle on what the fire might do, Hockenberry said. Three firefighters were killed when winds shifted at a wildfire in Washington state this year, according to the Associated Press. In 2013, 19 were killed when winds caught a team of responders by surprise.

Huge Clouds

“The heat from the fire creates a huge cloud that resembles a thunderstorm,” Hockenberry said.

That heat, plus debris from the fire and a lot of smoke, go up in the plume, and when it moves away from its source everything can collapse, he said.

“A lot of cooler, denser air flows out of that,” Hockenberry said. “If we can see the outflows on radar, we put out warnings.”

The winds that have been blowing toward the plume while it was building will reverse direction and go straight back. Firefighters have to disengage and get out of the way.

This year, for the fourth time since 1960, more than 9 million acres have burned, most of them in Alaska, said Robyn Broyles, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center, also in Boise. Blazes tend to be larger there because fires are used to help manage the ecosystem.

The number of U.S. fires so far this year -- 53,798 -- is less than the 10-year average of 68,878, she said. The time between mid-June and mid-September was particularly intense, and that was when Hockenberry’s group saw the most action.

The heart of the wildfire season has passed, although there is still a threat across Southern California, Broyles said. That will start to subside by next month. The respite will last about eight weeks and then the whole cycle begins again. By March or April, the season will be in full swing, Hockenberry said, and will peak during the summer.

“Maybe we get a two-month reprieve,” he said.

(An earlier version of this story was corrected to fix name in first paragraph.)

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